SALT - Thursday, 17 Kislev 5781 - December 3, 2020

  • Rav David Silverberg
            The Torah in Parashat Vayishlach lists Eisav’s descendants, and it begins this section by naming Eisav’s three wives as Ada, a Chittite; Aholivama, a Chivite; and Bosmat, the sister of Nevayot (36:2-3).  The commentators struggle to reconcile these names with the names of Eisav’s wives given earlier, in Parashat Toldot.  There, we read the Eisav married two Chittite women – Yehudit and Bosmat (26:34), and then later married Machalat, the sister of Yishmael’s son, Nevayot (28:9).  Whereas in Parashat Toldot, Eisav is said to have married Chittite women named Yehudit and Bosmat, and Yishmael’s daughter named Machalat, here, in Parashat Vayishlach, Bosmat is the name of Yishmael’s daughter, and the two other wives have different names.  (There is also a separate question of why Eisav’s first two wives are both identified as Chittite women in Parashat Toldot, while here in Parashat Vayishlach, one of them is referred to as hailing from the Chivi tribe.)
            Rashi resolves this difficulty by explaining, based on Midrashic sources, that these women were given different names.  According to Rashi, the real names of Eisav’s first two wives were Ada and Aholivama, and his third wife’s real name was Bosmat.  The Torah refers to Ada as Bosmat, Rashi explains, to signify “she-hayeta mekateret besamim la-avoda zara” – “that she would offer fragrant spices for pagan gods.”  As for Aholivama, Rashi writes that Eisav called her “Yehudit” (“Jewish”) as part of his effort to deceive his father into thinking that she embraced the family’s monotheistic faith.  And Bosmat, Yishmael’s daughter, was called “Machalat” in the verse telling of her marriage to Eisav to teach that one’s sins are forgiven (“nimchalu”) on the day he gets married.
            Returning to Ada, we might wonder why, according to the Midrash, the “besamim” – the fragrant spices – receive such emphasis.  Why is it significant that she not merely worshipped idols, but offered “besamim”?
            This question might be asked also in regard to Rashi’s earlier comment (27:1), citing the Midrash Tanchuma, that Yitzchak grew blind because of the smoke produced by the pagan offerings brought by Eisav’s wives.  Here, too, the Midrash specifies the “smoke” – likely referring to the fragrant smoke produced by incense.
            Perhaps, the Midrash here seeks to alert us to the particular danger of sinful conduct that is “fragrant,” that is appealing and attractive.  While some illicit behavior is readily identifiable as such, other forms of impropriety have a pleasing “aroma” which makes them alluring.  The description of the smoke of the pagan sacrifices damaging Yitzchak’s eyes might allude to the “blinding” effect of the “besamim,” the enchanting “scent” which is sometimes emitted by forbidden conduct.  This “fragrance” has the effect of distorting our perspective, of making vice seem virtuous.  We must exercise particular care with regard to the “besamim” which are offered to foreign gods, to the values and practices which are regarded as noble and virtuous, but are, in truth, foreign to our beliefs, our values, and our way of life.  The Midrash perhaps emphasizes the incense and the fragrant smoke it produced to warn of the “blinding” effect of foreign ideas which “waft” through the air with an appealing “fragrance.”  We must ensure not to be “blinded” by this pleasing “scent” and to instead remain steadfastly committed to our cherished values and traditions.